Consumed by Food: Can the Obesity Epidemic Change the Way We Eat?

This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

We’ve got a big problem. Even bigger than the overuse of weight-related puns when talking about the American obesity epidemic.

This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held its second annual “Weight of the Nation” conference — a gathering of political leaders, health professionals, and concerned citizens intended to highlight and discuss progress in the effort to address the public health crisis presented by the United States’ alarmingly high obesity rates.

The conference coincided with a deluge of new obesity-related fodder, including an upcoming HBO documentary and the release of two reports — one by the Institute of Medicine (the health arm of the quasi-governmental National Academy of Sciences) and one published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine — that include the latest set of statistics on the growing obesity problem, analyses of its implications for Americans’ health and our nation’s economy, and strategies for combating it.

Both reports articulate the same basic state of play: currently, approximately two-thirds of U.S. adults, and one-third of children, are overweight or obese. The human and economic costs of obesity-related illness and death are enormous; obese individuals are far more likely to live shorter lives and suffer severe health problems, including heart disease and diabetes, increasing national medical costs by hundreds of billions of dollars every year. And the problem is getting worse—the AJPM report estimates that, by 2030, 42% of the population will be obese.

According to that report’s authors, part of the reason obesity rates are so much higher than they were 50 years ago is that high-calorie foods are far more abundant and cheap than they used to be, making it much easier for someone to gain weight while eating the same “amount” of food. On top of that, our food culture increasingly extols a super-sized, all-you-can-eat mentality, mitigated only erratically by the latest fad diet.

So what can we do to reverse the trend toward a heavier, unhealthier population? While the complexity of the problem is daunting, almost everybody agrees that encouraging people to eat healthier and exercise are part of the solution. Not surprisingly, the first two “goals” articulated by the IOM report are “Make physical activity a routine and integral part of life,” and “Create food and beverage environments that ensure that healthy food and beverage options are the routine and easy choice.”

But when it comes to figuring out how to achieve those goals, particularly with respect to the food part of the equation, there is no consensus. This is especially true for the policy approaches that public health experts believe have the greatest impact on individuals’ food decisions: taxes, regulations, and other restrictions on high-sugar, high-calorie foods and beverages.

There has been a good deal of teeth-gnashing over the failure of recent efforts to enact some of these approaches–e.g., a federal soda tax, limits on what food stamps can buy, and rules governing how unhealthy foods are marketed to kids–including among supporters of the sustainable food movement, who share the desire to incentivize better food choices (and naturally derive pleasure from anything that sticks it to large food corporations).

In the crossfire between public health advocates (who are often singularly focused on “evidence-based” strategies to reduce obesity, regardless of whether such policies are otherwise desirable) and food companies (whose arguments are tainted by their clear financial interests), we often miss out on the chance to have a level-headed discussion about whether we want a system in which government policies actively prescribe which foods we should eat.

Presumably, most Americans–on both sides of the debate–would like to be able to choose the foods they eat without the government putting its finger on the scale, especially in an environment when our notion of what’s good for us and what isn’t is constantly evolving.

Of course, they’d also like a food system and culture that doesn’t send an inordinate number of people to an early grave, or drag down an already overburdened health care system. Whether we can have both depends on whether a sea change in the way people think about food is truly possible.

  1. Jeff Judge said:

    Hey Sam, great article. This brings to mind the comedic phrase; If McDonalds is to blame for your childs obesity, then blame Hooter’s for your husbands need for large breasts…..Amazing how not many studies are generated to compare natural food consumption versus foods w/ hormone, chems, & other additives as the true cause of health effects. For example, in shredded cheeses for sale, food companies are allowed to add cellulose for”non-caking”. WTF, this sounds digestible. I’m willing to bet obesity doctor lobbyists are in cahoots with the food company lobbies to insure a steady flow of “customers”. LOL, ……Later……

    • sam said:

      Hey Jeff, meant to respond earlier to say thanks for the comment. I don’t think it’s wrong to blame the environment for individuals’ food choices (sure, people are ultimately responsible for what they eat, but it’s tough if all you’ve ever known is processed food, and no one’s ever shown you how to cook a vegetable) — I just wonder whether a policy approach that picks which foods are good and which are bad wouldn’t be counterproductive in the end. And I’ll leave the conspiracy theories about food industry lobbyists and doctors to you slack-jawed yokels out in the sticks. We Washington insiders are far less conniving than you guys give us credit for.

  2. Jeff Judge said:

    Hey Sam, Good to hear from you. I just have to admit that I’m not an official “yokel”, I don’t have a rifle rack in my pic-up. I know you insider guys aren’t conniving and I’m no conspiracy theorist, I just love shining light on the lobbyists that hide in the dark. Their only purpose is to sway political favor towards their financial interests, away from “We The People”. It’s always for the greater good, isn’t it. I think it’s just modern day thinnin’ the herd. I enjoy your writing Sam. Jeff

    • sam said:

      Of course I was (sort of) kidding about your status as a yokel. I hope to write more about food/farm lobbying soon–while a lot of lobbying certainly fits into your general assessment, enlisting people who know how the system works is often the best way to get things done, for better or for worse. And “lobbyist” is a catch-all term often used to describe interest groups working on behalf of people I suspect you’d consider to be “good guys.” Anyway, thanks again for the feedback. Would love to come visit you at your pub one of these days.

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